Fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is prescribed to people with chronic pain, such as end-stage cancer patients. It is colorless and odorless, making it nearly impossible for the average person to detect. It is increasingly appearing on New Jersey streets, cut with or substituted for heroin leading to the death of dozens of unsuspecting users each year.
It s a silent threat, one that s difficult to detect. With heroin usage in New Jersey at levels not seen for years, there s a market for drugs like fentanyl, according to the Ocean County Prosecutor s office.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. It s a threat that has that has torn countless lives throughout Passaic County according to prosecutor Camila Valdez. Thankfully we ve only seen it pop up a few times around Paterson so far, because once that gets out there, it s a whole new ballgame. Valdes said.
When fentanyl does significantly enters the opioid market, the results can be devastating. From 2005 to 2007, fentanyl was blamed in scores of deaths in New Jersey and more than 1,000 nationwide. But experts say today, due to funding cuts and poor information exchange, New Jersey is currently only equipped to react to such and outbreak after the damage is done.
“There’s currently nothing in place in New Jersey that mandates the reporting of drug overdoses,” said Steven Marcus, medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education Center, who investigated the 2005 fentanyl outbreak. “In the past, we were able to pick up new outbreaks of such things as fentanyl being sold as heroin, the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids, etc. … Without real time reporting to us, we can only depend on someone thinking to call us. If we mandate all overdoses/poisonings, then we are less likely to miss something important.”
Compounding the issue, users don’t often know that their heroin has been cut with or substituted with fentanyl until it’s too late. It is pure poison and addicts think they will be able to manage but it is extremely potent.
In February 2014, nine people died or were hospitalized after heroin laced with fentanyl, unbeknownst to the user, appeared on Ocean County streets on envelope folds marked “Bud Light.”
In July, an 18-year-old Stafford man was found dead of a drug overdose. Investigators found several wax folds stamped “Hello Kitty” near his body containing a white powdery substance. It turned out to be nearly entirely fentanyl.
In neighboring Monmouth County, at least three people died from fentanyl-toxicity this past fall, according to county law enforcement records.
“It’s extremely powerful and it’s difficult to control when you’re administering it. Unfortunately if a person is na ve to the opioid it can be very dangerous,” said Steve Marcus, medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education Center. “We had one case where a woman was prescribed a patch for fentanyl. It appeared she rubbed the patch or scratched it in a way that changed how it was being distributed to her body and she died. So it can be extremely dangerous.”
A bill currently sitting in committee in the New Jersey state Senate and Assembly seeks to change that and provide funding to Marcus office, but it remains to be seen if it will be warmly received.
Fentanyl, in its pharmaceutical form, is often administered by injection, intravenous drip or provided to patients as a lollipop or a transdermal patch. It is expensive and, in its purest form, is generally only prescribed to patients in the most extreme of cases or as an anesthetic. But fentanyl, or an analogue of it known as acetyl fentanyl, can also be made fairly easily and, because of its potency, can be sold in very small quantities.
“One gram of pure fentanyl can be cut into approximately 7,000 doses for street sale,” the Center for Disease Control said in a 2008 report. “Manufacture of (fentanyl) requires minimal technical knowledge, and recipes for making (fentanyl) are available on the Internet.”
From 2005 to 2007, fentanyl primarily manufactured in a rogue laboratory in Mexico contributed to the death of more than 1,000 people around the country, including at least 178 in New Jersey.
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